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Earnhardt Back In Chase Saddle At Martinsville

With just four races to go in NASCAR’s “Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship,” the most popular driver returns, but his chances at winning the title are over. Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on Friday after missing the past two races this season while recovering from a concussion.

Earnhardt realizes he is doomed to finish last among the 12 drivers in the Chase, but he’s just happy to get back behind the wheel.

“There have been times when it’s frustrating because you want your brain to clear up, and the fogginess to go away, and all those symptoms to go away,” Earnhardt said Friday at Martinsville Speedway, site of the Tum’s Fast Relief 500 on Sunday. “Every concussion is different. They’re kind of like snowflakes. Everyone is different, and you react differently to each one. I’ve learned a whole lot about it. I feel good knowing what I know now about it, know what I’ve learned about it. It’s just been really frustrating at times.”

Regan Smith took over Earnhardt’s ride for the past two races and this week was hired by Earnhardt to drive at JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series in 2013.

“Regan (Smith) did a really good job for the team,” Earnhardt said. “I told him that I was worried about the momentum we’d built as a team, and he maintained that. I feel like we didn’t miss a beat, and I can get back in the car as if nothing has really been changed. That couldn’t have went better. It was really hard to see your car out there running around turning laps without you in it. That was difficult. I just know we had a really good test up until the tire blew at Kansas, and I was really expecting to go there and run really well; so it was frustrating knowing how good of a car we had, and not being able to enjoy that with the team.

“But you just kind of have to be patient and stay in regular contact with the doctors. Once I got to know the guys at Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center-Center for Sports Medicine Concussion Program -UPMC), I was on the phone with Mickey (Dr. Michael Collins) twice a day, just talking about everything that I was doing and everything I was feeling, because I just wanted to do it right. I didn’t want to take any chances, and I wanted to get back in the car as soon as I could. But I wanted to make sure it was not too quick.”

Earnhardt spent his two weeks off by exercising and following “doctor’s orders.”

“You just have got to be patient and let thing happen,” Earnhardt admitted. “I’ve learned a ton, just about what I’ve went through. Feel like I’m a lot smarter. A lot more prepared, and understand the situation a lot better now than I did beforehand. So, that’s really good. It’s been a good experience. It’s something I’d rather not have went through; I learned a lot from it. It’s been good for me. I’m just excited to be back to work. Get back in the car, and get back to normal. Get back to the life that I’m used to.”

Earnhardt will be wearing a new brand of helmet this weekend to provide even more protection to his head. Concussions are cumulative, and he is fully aware that the next hit can impact his previous injury.

When it was announced Earnhardt had a concussion and would sit out two races, there were some who recommended his season should be shut down to give him proper time to recover. Earnhardt admits he considered that.

“I left the table of options really kind of open,” he said. “Like the decision to get out of the car in the first place; I wanted the doctors to make that decision instead of me. If I could race, I wanted to be at the racetrack. It’s what I love to do. If the doctors felt that I was healthy enough to do that, I wanted to be doing it. I’ve really kind of left all that up to them throughout the whole process. And I’ve been honest and upfront about how I felt every day and when we go through exercises – how those are affecting me. I’ve been pretty honest, and so far they’ve been real pleased with what they’ve seen, and feel like I can get back in the car. That is what I want to do. I felt like I could have raced in Kansas for sure, and probably ran at Charlotte with no problem. I feel foolish…you know…I feel kind of foolish sitting at home feeling OK and not being in the car. It feels really unnatural. I feel good, and the doctors say it’s OK; I want to be in the car.

“I feel like I’ve been out of the car for a year. It doesn’t feel like a couple of weeks.”

Although he is destined to finish 12th in the Chase, Earnhardt is at a track where he has fared well lately. Going back to this race in 2010, he has two seventh-place finishes, a second place in the spring race in 2011 and a third-place this past April. Although he has no wins at Martinsville, he has 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 25 career starts. He qualified 20th Friday.

But the “Leader of the Pack” remains Dodge driver Brad Keselowski of Penske Racing. He has a seven-point lead over Jimmie Johnson heading into the race Sunday. But Keselowski has a lot of ground to cover to get to the front because he qualified 32nd Friday.

“I’m glad to be here in Martinsville and feeling the season wind down and like the stretch that we’ve been on,” Keselowski said. “I certainly would like to qualify better, and that’s at the forefront of my mind, but I’d much rather race toward the front rather than qualify toward the front if I had to pick between the two. I feel like we’ll be capable of pulling that off once the race gets started. Just ready to keep going, you know, feeling the season wind down and really feel good about our opportunities in front of us.”

Dodge driver Keselowski has no wins, no top fives and two top-10 finishes in five Martinsville starts. He was 17th last October and ninth this past April.

“Martinsville is just one of those tracks where it seems like there are numerous variables that we've struggled with, and I don't think they're our fault,” Keselowski said. “I look at last year, I think we were running fifth or sixth in the fall and just got caught up in a wreck on a late-race restart caused by somebody who retaliated on the track. You don't know how to predict that or I don't feel like there was anything I could do about it.

Penske Racing is devoting some impressive resources to help Keselowski deliver the team its first NASCAR Cup title.

“We have a brand-new Miller Lite Dodge this weekend, and I’m excited about its potential,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said. “We were able to test at Rockingham and came away very pleased. One key for me is that we are racing on the same tire we’ve been on for the last two Martinsville races. The left-rear tire is very important for forward bite at Martinsville, so it’s nice to know we can use some of our older notes. It’s still Martinsville, so anything can happen, but Brad likes racing there, and we are a confident team heading into this weekend. We really haven’t gotten the finishes we deserve there in past years. If you keep running in the top five or the top 10, good things will happen. Hopefully that is the case this weekend.”

Johnson is the highest of the “Brickyard Legends” as the four-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Cup champion won the pole Friday. He is just seven points behind Keselowski, and Martinsville is one of his best tracks. He has six wins, 14 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes in 21 starts at the short track. He was second in this race last year and 12th back in the spring.

This could be a points bonanza for Johnson.

“You know, on paper it kind of looks that way, but you just never know,” Johnson said after winning the pole. “When the playoffs hit, it doesn’t matter what sport it is, crazy things happen. And with that being said, yeah, we come here thinking that we should be able to get some points on the 2 (Brad Keselowski), but you never know. It’s going to be a long race. We’ve helped ourselves out dramatically today by qualifying on the pole. We’ve got the safest pit stall, and starting with track position is very important. So, stats show one thing, but you’ve still got to go run the race, and I feel really good about my Lowe’s Chevrolet, and I think we’ll be in strong, championship form leaving here.”

As a winner of five Sprint Cup titles, Johnson understands the pressure Keselowski is feeling as the points leader better than anyone in the Chase field.

“It's on all of us, but the points leader I think has the most pressure,” Johnson said. “I like being in that position because you are still in control. When you’re leading the points, it’s in your hands. But with that control comes pressure, especially later in the season and in the Chase, too. During different parts of the season, it’s an honor to lead the points. That honor is still there right now, but that light at the end of the tunnel is becoming much more vivid. There’s a picture there at the end of that tunnel, and that pressure starts to set in.”

Toyota driver Denny Hamlin is third in points 20 out of the lead. Virginia native Hamlin has four wins, nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 14 Martinsville starts. He was fifth last October and sixth this past May.

He lines up fifth Sunday.

"Every other week we have left hands full of points on the table,” Hamlin said. “Leaving them on the table means you didn't finish as good as your car was. Last week our car was better than a 13th place car, but it wasn't a winning car. We're disappointed in that aspect, especially when the guys that we're racing didn't have a stellar day themselves. You've got to capitalize on that, and we definitely didn't do that last week. It's frustrating because you look at our finishes, and it just bounces between good and bad every single week. I was talking with Darian (Grubb, crew chief), and we've got to figure out a way to minimize that.

“We've got to figure out these fuel issues that keep bugging us every single week. Fuel mileage is what cost us going two laps down in the course of the race with those cautions last week. We've got to change our strategy."

Another Toyota driver, Clint Bowyer, is fourth in the Chase, 25 out of the lead. He starts eighth Sunday and has no wins, one top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 13 Martinsville starts. Kasey Kahne is fifth in the standings, 30 points out of the lead, and starts 15th. Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. is sixth in the standings and starts 12th Sunday.

Another “Brickyard Legend,” Tony Stewart, is seventh in the standings, 47 points out of the lead. With only four races remaining, it will be tough to make up the deficit. Stewart qualified sixth Friday at a track where he has three wins, nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 27 starts. He won this race last year and finished seventh in April.

“It’s a long race here, for sure, especially if your car isn’t right; it seems like it takes forever,” Stewart said. “It is one that being a little bit off can cause a bad day just because of where you end up in the pack. This is a place, especially on starts and restarts, guys drive like idiots trying to get to the bottom, and it creates a lot of havoc. Guys are going to constantly do stupid stuff on restarts, and it’s going to cause problems because of that.”

Fellow “Brickyard Legend” Jeff Gordon is eighth in the standings, 51 points out of the lead, and will start 11th Sunday at a track where he has seven wins, 25 top-five and 31 top-10 finishes in 39 starts. He was third in this race last year and 14th back in April.

"Martinsville is just that kind of place where you get into a rhythm, and it's important when you get into traffic to maintain that rhythm or get back into it as fast as you possibly can,” Gordon said. “No other track demands the kind of rhythm needed at Martinsville. It's very easy to overdrive the corners here. When you're around other cars, you have to change your line and change what you're doing in order to make a pass. It's important to jump right back into that rhythm that you had. That's part of the challenge that comes with Martinsville.”

Ford driver Matt Kenseth is ninth in points, 55 out of the lead, with 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick rounding out the top 10, 59 points out of the lead. Ford’s Greg Biffle is 11th in points 62 out of first, and Earnhardt is 122 points out with only four races remaining.

Although he won’t be able to dig his way out of that hole, a victory Sunday could go a long way in helping Earnhardt’s recovery from his concussion.

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